Researcher: ‘We would not exist without Lautenberg’

Researcher: ‘We would not exist without Lautenberg’

Questions for Eitan Yefenof

Eitan Yefenof and Sen. Frank Lautenberg at his U.S. Senate office in 2011.
Eitan Yefenof and Sen. Frank Lautenberg at his U.S. Senate office in 2011.

Jewish philanthropy and causes played major roles in the life of the late Frank Lautenberg, even before he became a United States senator from New Jersey in 1982.

Among many other things, he served on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in the 1970s and chaired   United Jewish Appeal.

One of the many institutions that bear his name is the The Lautenberg Center for Immunology and Cancer Research at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lautenberg himself died in 2013 from lymphoma.

During a fund-raising trip that included stops in New York, Florida, and with a private donor in West Orange, Professor Eitan Yefenof, director of the Lautenberg Center, spoke with NJJN about the 47-year history of the center. 

“I consider New Jersey my second home,” he said. “We would not have existed without Frank Lautenberg.” His trip was sponsored by American Friends of The Hebrew University

NJJN: You are seeking $4.5 million to build nine new labs at the Lautenberg Center. What will they be used for?

Yefenof: Right now we have an old facility at the pharmacy building of the medical school that was built in the 1960s. We don’t have enough space for new recruitments or new equipment. So the idea of moving to a new space is to enlarge the laboratories, to recruit two young researchers, and to put in modern equipment in new facilities for tissue cultures and cell preservation.  

NJJN: What are some of the diseases you are researching and what kind of progress are you making with that research?

Yefenof: The immune system is part of many other protective mechanisms our cells and bodies have acquired to protect ourselves against cancer, for instance.  We speak about proteins, enzymes, cells, tissues, and cell-to-cell contact that all play a role in our bodies from developing cancer and other diseases as well.

NJJN: What promise do you see for the development of cures for cancer? 

Yefenof: I don’t think most cancer can be totally cured. But we want to make this disease chronic the way we did with juvenile diabetes through the advent of insulin. [Diabetes patients] can live high-quality lives for many years with insulin, and that is our goal with cancer.  

NJJN: There is a controversy in this country about the use of embryonic tissue in stem cell research. What is your view?

Yefenof:  I think most ethical issues [about stem cell research] are resolved [in Israel]. We are speaking of simple cultured embryonic cells. No hands. No eyes. No brains. You can use them to treat diseases — cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. It is a very important innovation that brings hope to many patients.

We have a project on multiple miscarriages. Because a fetus is a foreign body inside the mother, there are women who lose pregnancy after pregnancy. A group of our scientists found that the placenta in successful pregnancies is filled up with white blood cells that protect the fetus by forming an immune system in the mother. In those women who experience habitual miscarriages there is a malfunction and we now know how to fix it with natural chemicals in the body.   It also has important implications for people who have organ transplants.  We think in the future we can use those natural chemicals to prevent rejection.

NJJN: Many of your researchers come from abroad. Has the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement affected your recruiting of foreign scientists? 

Yefenof:  Almost all of our faculty members are recruited from Western Europe and the United States. The boycott movement is annoying, but I am not troubled with it because we are not affected by it.  

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

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